Scientists search for a universal coronavirus vaccine
The Covid-19 pandemic had barely begun when VBI Vaccines, a biopharmaceutical company based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, initiated their search for a universal coronavirus vaccine.
It was March 2020, and while most pharmaceutical companies were scrambling to initiate vaccine programs which specifically targeted the SARS-CoV-2 virus, VBI’s executives were already keen to look at the broader picture.
Having observed the SARS and MERS coronavirus outbreaks over the last two decades, Jeff Baxter, CEO of VBI Vaccines, was aware that SARS-CoV-2 is unlikely to be the last coronavirus to move from an animal host into humans. “It's absolutely apparent that the future is to create a vaccine which gives more broad protection against not only pre-existing coronaviruses, but those that will potentially make the leap into humans in future,” says Baxter.
It was a prescient decision. Over the last two years, more biotechs and pharma companies have joined the search to find a vaccine which might be able to protect against all coronaviruses, along with dozens of academic research groups. Last September, the US National Institutes of Health dedicated $36 million specifically to pan-coronavirus vaccine research, while the global Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) has earmarked $200 million towards the effort.
Until October 2021, the very concept of whether it might be
theoretically possible to vaccinate against multiple coronaviruses remained an open question. But then a groundbreaking study renewed optimism.
The emergence of new variants of Covid-19 over the past year, particularly the highly mutated Omicron variant, has added greater impetus to find broader spectrum vaccines. But until October 2021, the very concept of whether it might be theoretically possible to vaccinate against multiple coronaviruses remained an open question. After all, scientists have spent decades trying to develop a similar vaccine for influenza with little success.
But then a groundbreaking study from renowned virologist Linfa Wang, who runs the emerging infectious diseases program at Duke-National University of Singapore Medical School, provided renewed optimism.
Wang found that eight SARS survivors who had been injected with the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine had neutralising antibodies in their blood against SARS, the Alpha, Beta and Delta variants of SARS-CoV-2, and five other coronaviruses which reside in bats and pangolins. He concluded that the combination of past coronavirus infection, and immunization with a messenger RNA vaccine, had resulted in a wider spectrum of protection than might have been expected.
“This is a significant study because it showed that pre-existing immunity to one coronavirus could help with the elicitation of cross-reactive antibodies when immunizing with a second coronavirus,” says Kevin Saunders, Director of Research at the Duke Human Vaccine Institute in North Carolina, which is developing a universal coronavirus vaccine. “It provides a strategy to perhaps broaden the immune response against coronaviruses.”
In the next few months, some of the first data is set to emerge looking at whether this kind of antibody response could be elicited by a single universal coronavirus vaccine. In April 2021, scientists at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Silver Spring, Maryland, launched a Phase I clinical trial of their vaccine, with a spokesman saying that it was successful, and the full results will be announced soon.
The Walter Reed researchers have already released preclinical data, testing the vaccine in non-human primates where it was found to have immunising capabilities against a range of Covid-19 variants as well as the original SARS virus. If the Phase I trial displays similar efficacy, a larger Phase II trial will begin later this year.
Two different approaches
Broadly speaking, scientists are taking two contrasting approaches to the task of finding a universal coronavirus vaccine. The Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, VBI Vaccines – who plan to launch their own clinical trial in the summer – and the Duke Human Vaccine Institute – who are launching a Phase I trial in early 2023 – are using a soccer-ball shaped ferritin nanoparticle studded with different coronavirus protein fragments.
VBI Vaccines is looking to elicit broader immune responses by combining SARS, SARS-CoV-2 and MERS spike proteins on the same nanoparticle. Dave Anderson, chief scientific officer at VBI Vaccines, explains that the idea is that by showing the immune system these three spike proteins at the same time, it can help train it to identify and respond to subtle differences between coronavirus strains.
The Duke Human Vaccine Institute is utilising the same method, but rather than including the entire spike proteins from different coronaviruses, they are only including the receptor binding domain (RBD) fragment from each spike protein. “We designed our vaccine to focus the immune system on a site of vulnerability for the virus, which is the receptor binding domain,” says Saunders. “Since the RBD is small, arraying multiple RBDs on a nanoparticle is a straight-forward approach. The goal is to generate immunity to many different subgenuses of viruses so that there will be cross-reactivity with new or unknown coronaviruses.”
But the other strategy is to create a vaccine which contains regions of the viral protein structure which are conserved between all coronavirus strains. This is something which scientists have tried to do for a universal influenza vaccine, but it is thought to be more feasible for coronaviruses because they mutate at a slower rate and are more constrained in the ways that they can evolve.
DIOSynVax, a biotech based in Cambridge, United Kingdom, announced in a press release earlier this month that they are partnering with CEPI to use their computational predictive modelling techniques to identify common structures between all of the SARS coronaviruses which do not mutate, and thus present good vaccine targets.
Stephen Zeichner, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Virginia Medical Center, has created an early stage vaccine using the fusion peptide region – another part of the coronavirus spike protein that aids the virus’s entry into host cells – which so far appears to be highly conserved between all coronaviruses.
So far Zeichner has trialled this version of the vaccine in pigs, where it provided protection against a different coronavirus called porcine epidemic diarrhea virus, which he described as very promising as this virus is from a different family called alphacoronaviruses, while SARS-CoV-2 is a betacoronavirus.
“If a betacoronavirus fusion peptide vaccine designed from SARS-CoV-2 can protect pigs against clinical disease from an alphacoronavirus, then that suggests that an analogous vaccine would enable broad protection against many, many different coronaviruses,” he says.
The road ahead
But while some of the early stage results are promising, researchers are fully aware of the scale of the challenge ahead of them. Although CEPI have declared an aim of having a licensed universal coronavirus vaccine available by 2024-2025, Zeichner says that such timelines are ambitious in the extreme.
“I was incredibly impressed at the speed at which the mRNA coronavirus vaccines were developed for SARS-CoV-2,” he says. “That was faster than just about anybody anticipated. On the other hand, I think a universal coronavirus vaccine is more equivalent to the challenge of developing an HIV vaccine and we're 35 years into that effort without success. We know a lot more now than before, and maybe it will be easier than we think. But I think the route to a universal vaccine is harder than an individual vaccine, so I wouldn’t want to put money on a timeline prediction.”
The major challenge for scientists is essentially designing a vaccine for a future threat which is not even here yet. As such, there are no guidelines on what safety data would be required to license such a vaccine, and how researchers can demonstrate that it truly provides efficacy against all coronaviruses, even those which have not yet jumped to humans.
The teams working on this problem have already devised some ingenious ways of approaching the challenge. VBI Vaccines have taken the genetic sequences of different coronaviruses found in bats and pangolins, from publicly available databases, and inserted them into what virologists call a pseudotype virus – one which has been engineered so it does not have enough genetic material to replicate.
This has allowed them to test the neutralising antibodies that their vaccine produces against these coronaviruses in test tubes, under safe lab conditions. “We have literally just been ordering the sequences, and making synthetic viruses that we can use to test the antibody responses,” says Anderson.
However, some scientists feel that going straight to a universal coronavirus vaccine is likely to be too complex. Instead they say that we should aim for vaccines which are a little more specific. Pamela Bjorkman, a structural biologist at the California Institute of Technology, suggests that pan-coronavirus vaccines which protect against SARS-like betacoronaviruses such as SARS or SARS-CoV-2, or MERS-like betacoronaviruses, may be more realistic.
“I think a vaccine to protect against all coronaviruses is likely impossible since there are so many varieties,” she says. “Perhaps trying to narrow down the scope is advisable.”
But if the mission to develop a universal coronavirus vaccine does succeed, it will be one of the most remarkable feats in the annals of medical science. In January, US chief medical advisor Anthony Fauci urged for greater efforts to be devoted towards this goal, one which scientists feel would be the biological equivalent of the race to develop the first atomic bomb
“The development of an effective universal coronavirus vaccine would be equally groundbreaking, as it would have global applicability and utility,” says Saunders. “Coronaviruses have caused multiple deadly outbreaks, and it is likely that another outbreak will occur. Having a vaccine that prevents death from a future outbreak would be a tremendous achievement in global health.”
He agrees that it will require creativity on a remarkable scale: “The universal coronavirus vaccine will also require ingenuity and perseverance comparable to that needed for the Manhattan project.”
Scientists redesign bacteria to tackle the antibiotic resistance crisis
In 1945, almost two decades after Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, he warned that as antibiotics use grows, they may lose their efficiency. He was prescient—the first case of penicillin resistance was reported two years later. Back then, not many people paid attention to Fleming’s warning. After all, the “golden era” of the antibiotics age had just began. By the 1950s, three new antibiotics derived from soil bacteria — streptomycin, chloramphenicol, and tetracycline — could cure infectious diseases like tuberculosis, cholera, meningitis and typhoid fever, among others.
Today, these antibiotics and many of their successors developed through the 1980s are gradually losing their effectiveness. The extensive overuse and misuse of antibiotics led to the rise of drug resistance. The livestock sector buys around 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. every year. Farmers feed cows and chickens low doses of antibiotics to prevent infections and fatten up the animals, which eventually causes resistant bacterial strains to evolve. If manure from cattle is used on fields, the soil and vegetables can get contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Another major factor is doctors overprescribing antibiotics to humans, particularly in low-income countries. Between 2000 to 2018, the global rates of human antibiotic consumption shot up by 46 percent.
In recent years, researchers have been exploring a promising avenue: the use of synthetic biology to engineer new bacteria that may work better than antibiotics. The need continues to grow, as a Lancetstudy linked antibiotic resistance to over 1.27 million deaths worldwide in 2019, surpassing HIV/AIDS and malaria. The western sub-Saharan Africa region had the highest death rate (27.3 people per 100,000).
Researchers warn that if nothing changes, by 2050, antibiotic resistance could kill 10 million people annually.
To make it worse, our remedy pipelines are drying up. Out of the 18 biggest pharmaceutical companies, 15 abandoned antibiotic development by 2013. According to the AMR Action Fund, venture capital has remained indifferent towards biotech start-ups developing new antibiotics. In 2019, at least two antibiotic start-ups filed for bankruptcy. As of December 2020, there were 43 new antibiotics in clinical development. But because they are based on previously known molecules, scientists say they are inadequate for treating multidrug-resistant bacteria. Researchers warn that if nothing changes, by 2050, antibiotic resistance could kill 10 million people annually.
The rise of synthetic biology
To circumvent this dire future, scientists have been working on alternative solutions using synthetic biology tools, meaning genetically modifying good bacteria to fight the bad ones.
From the time life evolved on earth around 3.8 billion years ago, bacteria have engaged in biological warfare. They constantly strategize new methods to combat each other by synthesizing toxic proteins that kill competition.
For example, Escherichia coli produces bacteriocins or toxins to kill other strains of E.coli that attempt to colonize the same habitat. Microbes like E.coli (which are not all pathogenic) are also naturally present in the human microbiome. The human microbiome harbors up to 100 trillion symbiotic microbial cells. The majority of them are beneficial organisms residing in the gut at different compositions.
The chemicals that these “good bacteria” produce do not pose any health risks to us, but can be toxic to other bacteria, particularly to human pathogens. For the last three decades, scientists have been manipulating bacteria’s biological warfare tactics to our collective advantage.
In the late 1990s, researchers drew inspiration from electrical and computing engineering principles that involve constructing digital circuits to control devices. In certain ways, every cell in living organisms works like a tiny computer. The cell receives messages in the form of biochemical molecules that cling on to its surface. Those messages get processed within the cells through a series of complex molecular interactions.
Synthetic biologists can harness these living cells’ information processing skills and use them to construct genetic circuits that perform specific instructions—for example, secrete a toxin that kills pathogenic bacteria. “Any synthetic genetic circuit is merely a piece of information that hangs around in the bacteria’s cytoplasm,” explains José Rubén Morones-Ramírez, a professor at the Autonomous University of Nuevo León, Mexico. Then the ribosome, which synthesizes proteins in the cell, processes that new information, making the compounds scientists want bacteria to make. “The genetic circuit remains separated from the living cell’s DNA,” Morones-Ramírez explains. When the engineered bacteria replicates, the genetic circuit doesn’t become part of its genome.
Highly intelligent by bacterial standards, some multidrug resistant V. cholerae strains can also “collaborate” with other intestinal bacterial species to gain advantage and take hold of the gut.
In 2000, Boston-based researchers constructed an E.coli with a genetic switch that toggled between turning genes on and off two. Later, they built some safety checks into their bacteria. “To prevent unintentional or deleterious consequences, in 2009, we built a safety switch in the engineered bacteria’s genetic circuit that gets triggered after it gets exposed to a pathogen," says James Collins, a professor of biological engineering at MIT and faculty member at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute. “After getting rid of the pathogen, the engineered bacteria is designed to switch off and leave the patient's body.”
Overuse and misuse of antibiotics causes resistant strains to evolve
Seek and destroy
As the field of synthetic biology developed, scientists began using engineered bacteria to tackle superbugs. They first focused on Vibrio cholerae, whichin the 19th and 20th century caused cholera pandemics in India, China, the Middle East, Europe, and Americas. Like many other bacteria, V. cholerae communicate with each other via quorum sensing, a process in which the microorganisms release different signaling molecules, to convey messages to its brethren. Highly intelligent by bacterial standards, some multidrug resistant V. choleraestrains can also “collaborate” with other intestinal bacterial species to gain advantage and take hold of the gut. When untreated, cholera has a mortality rate of 25 to 50 percent and outbreaks frequently occur in developing countries, especially during floods and droughts.
Sometimes, however, V. cholerae makes mistakes. In 2008, researchers at Cornell University observed that when quorum sensing V. cholerae accidentally released high concentrations of a signaling molecule called CAI-1, it had a counterproductive effect—the pathogen couldn’t colonize the gut.
So the group, led byJohn March, professor of biological and environmental engineering, developed a novel strategy to combat V. cholerae. They genetically engineered E.coli toeavesdrop on V. cholerae communication networks and equipped it with the ability to release the CAI-1 molecules. That interfered with V. cholerae progress.Two years later, the Cornell team showed that V. cholerae-infected mice treated with engineered E.coli had a 92 percent survival rate.
These findings inspired researchers to sic the good bacteria present in foods like yogurt and kimchi onto the drug-resistant ones.
Three years later in 2011, Singapore-based scientists engineered E.coli to detect and destroy Pseudomonas aeruginosa, an oftendrug-resistant pathogen that causes pneumonia, urinary tract infections, and sepsis. Once the genetically engineered E.coli found its target through its quorum sensing molecules, it then released a peptide, that could eradicate 99 percent of P. aeruginosa cells in a test-tube experiment. The team outlined their work in a Molecular Systems Biology study.
“At the time, we knew that we were entering new, uncharted territory,” says lead author Matthew Chang, an associate professor and synthetic biologist at the National University of Singapore and lead author of the study. “To date, we are still in the process of trying to understand how long these microbes stay in our bodies and how they might continue to evolve.”
More teams followed the same path. In a 2013 study, MIT researchers also genetically engineered E.coli to detect P. aeruginosa via the pathogen’s quorum-sensing molecules. It then destroyed the pathogen by secreting a lab-made toxin.
Probiotics that fight
A year later in 2014, a Nature study found that the abundance of Ruminococcus obeum, a probiotic bacteria naturally occurring in the human microbiome, interrupts and reduces V.cholerae’s colonization—by detecting the pathogen’s quorum sensing molecules. The natural accumulation of R. obeumin Bangladeshi adults helped them recover from cholera despite living in an area with frequent outbreaks.
Engineered bacteria can be trained to target pathogens when they are at their most vulnerable metabolic stage in the human gut. --José Rubén Morones-Ramírez.
These findings inspired researchers to sic the good bacteria present in foods like yogurt and kimchi onto the drug-resistant ones. So far, researchers have engineered various probiotic organisms to fight pathogenic bacteria like Staphylococcus aureus (leading cause of skin, tissue, bone, joint and blood infections) and Clostridium perfringens (which causes watery diarrhea) in test-tube and animal experiments. In 2020, Russian scientists engineered a probiotic called Pichia pastoris to produce an enzyme called lysostaphin that eradicated S. aureus in vitro. Another 2020 study from China used an engineered probiotic bacteria Lactobacilli casei as a vaccine to prevent C. perfringens infection in rabbits.
In a study last year, Ramírez’s group at the Autonomous University of Nuevo León, engineered E. coli to detect quorum-sensing molecules from Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus or MRSA, a notorious superbug. The E. coli then releases a bacteriocin that kills MRSA. “An antibiotic is just a molecule that is not intelligent,” says Ramírez. “On the other hand, engineered bacteria can be trained to target pathogens when they are at their most vulnerable metabolic stage in the human gut.”
Collins and Timothy Lu, an associate professor of biological engineering at MIT, found that engineered E. coli can help treat other conditions—such as phenylketonuria, a rare metabolic disorder, that causes the build-up of an amino acid phenylalanine. Their start-up Synlogic aims to commercialize the technology, and has completed a phase 2 clinical trial.
Circumventing the challenges
The bacteria-engineering technique is not without pitfalls. One major challenge is that beneficial gut bacteria produce their own quorum-sensing molecules that can be similar to those that pathogens secrete. If an engineered bacteria’s biosensor is not specific enough, it will be ineffective.
Another concern is whether engineered bacteria might mutate after entering the gut. “As with any technology, there are risks where bad actors could have the capability to engineer a microbe to act quite nastily,” says Collins of MIT. But Collins and Ramírez both insist that the chances of the engineered bacteria mutating on its own are virtually non-existent. “It is extremely unlikely for the engineered bacteria to mutate,” Ramírez says. “Coaxing a living cell to do anything on command is immensely challenging. Usually, the greater risk is that the engineered bacteria entirely lose its functionality.”
However, the biggest challenge is bringing the curative bacteria to consumers. Pharmaceutical companies aren’t interested in antibiotics or their alternatives because it’s less profitable than developing new medicines for non-infectious diseases. Unlike the more chronic conditions like diabetes or cancer that require long-term medications, infectious diseases are usually treated much quicker. Running clinical trials are expensive and antibiotic-alternatives aren’t lucrative enough.
“Unfortunately, new medications for antibiotic resistant infections have been pushed to the bottom of the field,” says Lu of MIT. “It's not because the technology does not work. This is more of a market issue. Because clinical trials cost hundreds of millions of dollars, the only solution is that governments will need to fund them.” Lu stresses that societies must lobby to change how the modern healthcare industry works. “The whole world needs better treatments for antibiotic resistance.”
Meet Dr. Renee Wegrzyn, the first Director of President Biden's new health agency, ARPA-H
In today’s podcast episode, I talk with Renee Wegrzyn, appointed by President Biden as the first director of a health agency created last year, the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, or ARPA-H. It’s inspired by DARPA, the agency that develops innovations for the Defense department and has been credited with hatching world-changing technologies such as ARPANET, which became the internet.
Time will tell if ARPA-H will lead to similar achievements in the realm of health. That’s what President Biden and Congress expect in return for funding ARPA-H at 2.5 billion dollars over three years.
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How will the agency figure out which projects to take on, especially with so many patient advocates for different diseases demanding moonshot funding for rapid progress?
I talked with Dr. Wegrzyn about the opportunities and challenges, what lessons ARPA-H is borrowing from Operation Warp Speed, how she decided on the first ARPA-H project that was announced recently, why a separate agency was needed instead of reforming HHS and the National Institutes of Health to be better at innovation, and how ARPA-H will make progress on disease prevention in addition to treatments for cancer, Alzheimer’s and diabetes, among many other health priorities.
Dr. Wegrzyn’s resume leaves no doubt of her suitability for this role. She was a program manager at DARPA where she focused on applying gene editing and synthetic biology to the goal of improving biosecurity. For her work there, she received the Superior Public Service Medal and, in case that wasn’t enough ARPA experience, she also worked at another ARPA that leads advanced projects in intelligence, called I-ARPA. Before that, she ran technical teams in the private sector working on gene therapies and disease diagnostics, among other areas. She has been a vice president of business development at Gingko Bioworks and headed innovation at Concentric by Gingko. Her training and education includes a PhD and undergraduate degree in applied biology from the Georgia Institute of Technology and she did her postdoc as an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow in Heidelberg, Germany.
Dr. Wegrzyn told me that she’s “in the hot seat.” The pressure is on for ARPA-H especially after the need and potential for health innovation was spot lit by the pandemic and the unprecedented speed of vaccine development. We'll soon find out if ARPA-H can produce gamechangers in health that are equivalent to DARPA’s creation of the internet.
ARPA-H - https://arpa-h.gov/
Dr. Wegrzyn profile - https://arpa-h.gov/people/renee-wegrzyn/
Dr. Wegrzyn Twitter - https://twitter.com/rwegrzyn?lang=en
President Biden Announces Dr. Wegrzyn's appointment - https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statement...
Leaps.org coverage of ARPA-H - https://leaps.org/arpa/
ARPA-H program for joints to heal themselves - https://arpa-h.gov/news/nitro/ -
ARPA-H virtual talent search - https://arpa-h.gov/news/aco-talent-search/
Dr. Renee Wegrzyn was appointed director of ARPA-H last October.
Matt Fuchs is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org and Making Sense of Science. He is also a contributing reporter to the Washington Post and has written for the New York Times, Time Magazine, WIRED and the Washington Post Magazine, among other outlets. Follow him @fuchswriter.